What Moscow and Washington Learned About Each Other in Iraq

Soviet brass saw effectiveness of US military technology and strategy

NOWHERE will the stunning success of the United States military in the Persian Gulf have bigger repercussions than in the massive Soviet defense establishment. The war provided the Soviets with an unprecedented look at US military tactics and a new generation of high-tech weaponry.

US-based analysts on Soviet military affairs say the knowledge Moscow gleaned could have a big impact on future Soviet military planning, manpower decisions, and perhaps on the direction of the Soviet economy.

``There must be tremendous resentment in having seen coalition forces perform so well after the Soviets did so poorly in Afghanistan,'' says Benjamin Lambeth, a Soviet military expert at the RAND Corporation.

The US may have learned a few things about the Soviets, too, since the Iraqis fielded a largely Soviet-trained and Soviet-equipped army. But analysts say the knowledge to be gained here is far less substantial, since an Iraqi in Russian clothing does not a Russian make.

``The technological performance of our weapons systems clearly has had a devastating impact on their pysche,'' says retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency. They must improve their industrial base, he says, or ``they are not going to be in the race.''

In an era of diminished East-West tensions, it might seem odd for the two countries to be so interested in each other's military capabilities, particularly in a war in which they were on the same side. It might also seem unusual because one of scenarios the information would be most useful for - a conventional East-West war in Europe - now seems remote.

Yet the United States and the Soviet Union can still obliterate each other in less than 30 minutes. Both sides continue to base their military planning on the other's intentions and arsenals.

US analysts say the Soviets picked up as much information as they could through spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping, the Western press, and informants in the Iraqi military, an institution they have long had a close relationship with. Among the things that likely impressed - or horrified - them:

Technology. The Soviets got their first look at some US weapons developed since the Vietnam War and a good look at others that have been around awhile. The result, experts say, can only be sobering to the Soviet military.

In the air, Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads, operated with seeing-eye-dog accuracy. F-117 Stealth fighters penetrated Soviet-built air defenses with impunity. ``Smart'' bombs, electronic jamming equipment, and Patriot missiles seemed to wow even some US officials.

On the ground, the test of US versus Soviet technology was less telling, since coalition forces had complete air superiority and the ground war did not last long. Even so, US troops got combat experience with some weapons whose performance has been doubtful, such as the M-1A1 tank and Apache helicopter.

Manpower. Stephen Meyer, a Soviet defense expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the one thing Soviet military officials visiting this country are always impressed with is the training and proficiency of US soldiers and noncommissioned officers.

The all-volunteer force sent overseas was older, more educated, and better motivated than the draft armies of Vietnam. Their performance is one reason the technological side of the war went so well. This could cause the Soviet to debate whether to continue with a national conscript army or move toward a smaller, more professional force.

``What the Gulf war shows them is that the training competency required for soldiers and field-grade officers is not easy to obtain - and, when you have it, it's awesome,'' says General Odom. ``You are not going to deal with'' an army of this kind with ``two-year draftees.''

Strategy. Although the Soviets have long been familiar with the US's air-land strategy, the war, as one analyst puts it, ``put some substance behind it.'' Moscow has to be impressed with the way coalition forces coordinated air-ground attacks.

``I think this war will play into the hands of reformers: If you want a modern military, you better get a modern economy,'' says Dr. Meyer.

Still, if the Soviets are impressed, they won't say so too loudly. Moscow has pooh-poohed the idea that the Gulf conflict was a US-Soviet proxy war or a test of the two countries' weaponry.

Beneath these denunciations, however, residues of concern have surfaced. A recent article in the Soviet defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda questioned the wisdom of Soviet military doctrine that concentrates primarily on defensive actions.

Whether this was spurred by the Iraqi debacle in the war is not known, but one US defense-industry newsletter notes that the Soviets ``may even determine that it needs to reevaluate its approach to warfare.''

The Pentagon probably did not learn much about the Soviets. Maybe a little more about Soviet T-72 tanks, air defenses, and top-down command. But, for the most part, Iraqi military tactics are their own, developed during the Iran-Iraq war.

Analysts, in fact, caution either side against drawing broad conclusions about a US-Soviet clash from the war. The Iraqis are not the Russians in might, manpower, or almost any other way. Nor is Kuwait Europe.

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